Thursday, September 30, 2010

County Kildare Links with Malta

‘Did you lamp the sham?’  The question was put to me in Malta many miles from the County Galway town of Tuam where apparently every male can be referred to as ‘sham’ and where the sighting of a ‘sham’ merits the term ‘lamping’.  I was on the Mediterranean island for an Athy wedding where the guarantee of sunshine is proving more and more attractive for Irish people accustomed to a less warmer and much wetter climate. 

It was the father of the bride, himself a County Galway man, who put the puzzling question to me, meriting a non committal response which underlined my ignorance of the Tuam cant.  I was reminded when he explained his question and its origins of a similar feeling of bewilderment when within days of taking up a job in Monaghan town many years ago I was asked ‘how are the care?’.  Every Irish town apparently has its own linguistic peculiarities and I’m sure that many of those who moved to Athy within the last few years have come across some of the local Athy sayings which alone have common currency in the South Kildare town.

Wherever I go abroad I am always surprised at the smallness of this world of ours as links and connections become apparent with our own town on the River Barrow.  Malta, an island of 400,000 or so persons, was for a short time the base for many Athy born soldiers who fought in the Crimean War.  The local harbours were filled with British transport ships on their way to the Crimea and as the war progressed hospitals were set up in Malta to cater for the sick and wounded British soldiers, some of whom were from South Kildare and the town of Athy.

But even further back in history an English soldier whose actions and orders during the 1798 Rebellion affected the people of Athy and South Kildare was to be found in Malta.  Sir Ralph Abercromby was Commander in Chief of the British Army in Ireland during the ’98 rebellion and he spearheaded the systematic and brutal suppression of the United Irishmen’s Rising.  Two years later he was transferred to Malta to become Commander in Chief of the British Command in the Mediterranean.  He would later be replaced by Horatio Nelson who commanded the British fleet which defeated Napoleon’s French fleet off Cape Trafalgar in one of the biggest naval battles of the period. 

Britain had taken control of Malta in 1799 and the sixth Governor of the Island was a Kildare man, Richard More O’Farrell.  He was appointed Governor of Malta in 1847, the first Catholic appointed to that position.  He was 50 years of age at the time of his appointment and had previously served as Member of Parliament for his native County of Kildare for 17 years.  His appointment was somewhat controversial in British circles as he was a Catholic, but the British Prime Minister obviously felt that his religious beliefs made him a suitable candidate as Governor of an island whose population was largely Catholic.  O’Farrell appears to have been an energetic Governor whose period of office saw many improvements on the island.  Despite O’Farrell’s apparent success Queen Victoria received demands for his removal from a Republican group with anti-Catholic leanings supported by elements of the British establishment.  O’Farrell resigned the governorship in May 1851 on the grounds that he would not serve under Lord John Russell, the British Prime Minister who had the Ecclesiastical Tithes Bill passed into law in opposition to the Papal Bull which created the Catholic hierarchy in England.  He died in 1880 having been returned again as M.P. for County Kildare from 1859 to 1865.

As a teenager I was a member of the local Knights of Malta and in the city of Valetta, Malta’s capital city, is to be found the Church of St. John the Baptist.  Built by the Knights of St. John in the 16th century the Church was the Knights’ religious headquarters until their downfall in the mid 19th century.  The organisation first founded in the 11th century as a nursing brotherhood later took on responsibility for defending pilgrims to the Holy Land and occupied Rhodes as its powerbase.  Later in the 16th century the Knights of the Order of St. John were granted Malta by Charles V of Spain and they were responsible for making Malta the last Christian outpost in Europe.  It was Napoleon who having captured Malta hastened the decline of the ancient Order which by virtue of its island association was generally known as the Order of Malta. 

Decades earlier the strict observance of the Order’s rules had fallen into disrepute, so much so that the Catholic organisation allowed a Protestant branch to be formed in England.  Ultimately shortly after More O’Farrell left Malta the English branch of the Order broke away from the sovereign Order of Malta.  It declared its own sovereignty under the title of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem which later gave rise to the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade.  Today the original Order of St. John is known as the Order of Malta, with representatives in many countries throughout the world.  Our local branch here in Athy has been functioning for over 50 years.   

Malta was host to a large gathering of Athy folk last week all enjoying the wedding of Jane Timoney and Eamon Walsh.  It was a lovely occasion graced by the families and friends of the young couple to whom goes our best wishes for their future happiness.  As for ‘the sham’ I did ‘lamp’ him!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Stone Castles in Medieval Athy

One of the most distinctive features in the Irish landscape is the stone castle.  We are particularly fortunate in Athy to have two fine examples in our town, Whites Castle on the bridge in Athy and Woodstock Castle on the west bank of the River Barrow.

We have a tendency to take these features in our town for granted, forgetting what extraordinary survivals they are from a period of over 500 years ago in our town’s history.  The landscape in Kildare is peppered with castles from various ages ranging from the magnificence of the 12th/13th century Maynooth and Carbery Castles to the simple little tower houses such as those at Jigginstown in Naas.

Apart from being a wonderful historical repository of our past they also are an indicator of the stresses and strains of past times.  The area with the greatest concentration in castles in Kildare lies upon the borders between Kildare and Dublin and Wicklow.  The border with Laois and Offaly has few castles, excepting a concentration of castles in the north of Kildare around Carbery and Rathangan.  A town such as Athy at the very edge of the settled Anglo Norman area in the 12th and 13th centuries was regarded by some as ‘the last outpost of civilisation’ before reaching the areas of Laois and Offaly where the ‘wild Irish’ resided.  The frontier element to Athy’s location was recognised by the administration in Dublin in 1300 when provisions were made for the construction of a ‘fortalice’ not only at Kildare and Rathangan but at Athy.

What exactly a ‘fortalice’ was is not entirely clear but it is likely to have been an area in the town defined by a stout upright palisade of timber posts and an earthen bank.  The defence of Athy and the area surrounding it remained a constant concern all through the late 13th century.  In the closing years of the century monies were spent on armies in Kildare directed against the native Irish.  In the 1280s John Fitzthomas, Lord of Offaly (an ancestor of the Duke of Leinster) in conjunction with Peter de Bermingham, Lord of Tethmoy, began a vigorous campaign against the Irish with such success that the administration was content to entrust the defence in the region to him in the period 1297 to 1316.  The Sheriff for Kildare in 1306, Albert de Kenylee, was assiduous in recording his expenditure in arming the men to keep Kildare safe and in his words ‘to resist the malice of the Irish of Offaly’.  John Fitzthomas himself later in 1306 was granted aid in furnishing his lands at Geashill with appropriate monies ‘to have 20 men at arms with as many horses equipped.’  However it appears that these provisions were unsuccessful as his property was destroyed by the Irish in 1307. 

The period defined by the late 13th and early 14th centuries seems to have been at the time of extraordinary upheaval in this area.  An assessment of lands in Wicklow in 1305 on the borders of Kildare were described as being worth ‘in time of war nothing, because the issues are not sufficient for half the costs of keeping them, and that is a land of war among the Irish, who are more often at war than at peace.’  Athy itself was not immune to the degradations of war and it appears that on at least four separate occasions in the 13th century the town was effectively sacked by warring factions.  The Norman settlers of Kildare found themselves in the unhappy position in the early 14th century as existing between two areas of Irish influence, to the east the Leinster mountains were occupied by the McMorroughs, the O’Byrnes, O’Tooles and O’Nolans and to the west in the marshes of Laois and Offaly the O’Morroughs, O’Connors and the O’Moores offered resistance to the English settlements.  The O’Byrnes and O’Tooles had been expelled from Kildare at an early stage of the Norman settlement in the late 12th century and their uneasy presence in the mountains was a dominant factor in perpetuating an almost continuous state of war between the areas they controlled and the lands of the colonists.  In the years from 1306 to 1313 the Dublin administration mounted seven expeditions against the Irish of the mountains, with the resultant warfare absorbing between 10 and 60% of the Exchequers annual revenue.  This almost continual state of warfare was exacerbated by the invasion of Ireland by the Scottish armies of Bruce in the period 1315 to 1318.  In 1315 the Scottish Army devastated much of Kildare including Castledermot, Athy and Rheban, while in 1317 the towns of Naas and Castledermot were plundered.  Whatever recovery South Kildare made in the period after the war ended in 1318 it was probably wiped out by the arrival of Black Death in 1348.  The campaign by the English King Richard II in Ireland in 1394 offered a brief respite, while restoring Royal control of Kildare the areas around it descended into intermittent warfare in the early 1400s.  Those castles that still survive in the area bear silent testament to those uncertain and violent times.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Sr. helen Keegan / Bridget Hughes

The journey of life which started in Kilbeggan 66 years ago ended in Athy this week for the lady described by Fr. Philip Dennehy as an educationalist, a Christian lady and a Sister of Mercy.  Sr. Francis, as she was once known but who in later years reverted to her own name of Sister Helen Keegan, was buried in the Mercy plot in the new St. Michael’s Cemetery.  A soft drizzle of rain fell as her cortege wound its way up the cemetery avenue leading from the Dublin Road only to ease as the final parting prayers were said.  As the assembled Sisters of Mercy raised their voices as one in rendering the Salve Regina as a final farewell to their colleague the rain stopped as suddenly as it had started.  It contrasted with the stormy weather which greeted the young Helen Keegan as she journeyed from Kilbeggan to Athy 49 years ago to enter the independent Mercy House of Athy.  The Annals of the local Convent of Mercy simply note on 29th October 1961 ‘Miss Helen Keegan entered’.  What it did not record was the terrible weather conditions on that late October day which were so bad that the young Helen Keegan, accompanied by her parents, very nearly never completed the journey to Athy.

That same year Sr. Dominic celebrated her Silver Jubilee, while her successor as Matron of St. Vincent’s Hospital, Sr. Canice, made her first profession the previous Easter Sunday.  1961 was also the centenary year of the coming of the Christian Brothers to Athy, celebrated that year with festivities which lasted for one week from June 27th.

On the 8th of July 1964 Sr. Francis was called to teacher training in Carysfort College and 17 days later she made her triennial vows.  She made her final profession on the 25th of July 1967 with Sr. Mary Ann and a year later Sr. Francis obtained her teachers Diploma.  She taught in Scoil Mhuire where she was appointed Superior in 1986, finally retiring from teaching 13 years later. 

As a member of that dedicated community of teachers, nurses and community workers who comprised the Sisters of Mercy in Athy she followed in the footsteps of Mother Catherine McAuley, as did so many others who since 1852 worked ceaselessly and with great effect amongst the people of Athy and district.

The Mercy Order which was once the only religious order to have a convent in every diocese in Ireland is now sadly in decline.  The first Sister of Mercy was professed in December 1831 just a few years after the granting of Catholic Emancipation.  For many decades religious professions were more than enough to maintain a vibrant Mercy community here in Athy but they fell sharply in recent decades prompting the closing of the Mercy Convent.  The closure of the Convent due to falling numbers leaves us today with approximately 21, most elderly nuns, living in different addresses throughout the town.  Their legacy of good work amongst the local community which first welcomed the Sisters of Mercy to Athy just a few years after the Great Famine is one which will never be forgotten. 

The passing of Sr. Helen at 66 years of age was a sad blow for the local Mercy community where she had spent many happy and productive years.  It was during her term as Principal of Scoil Mhuire that the girls secondary school and the Christian Brothers boys school were brought together in the same school complex.  Both schools amalgamated within recent years to give us the rather strangely named Ard Scoil Na Trionoide. 

Sr. Helen, whose journey to Athy 49 years ago commenced in a storm and ended last week with soft drizzling rain falling on those who followed her coffined remains to St. Michael’s Cemetery, earned the respect and admiration of the people of Athy for her work as an educationalist and as a Sister of Mercy.

A few hours after Sister Helen’s funeral 97 year old Bridget Hughes was laid to rest in Old St. Michael’s Cemetery.  Bridget was the last of three Hughes sisters who lived for many years in Janeville House just off Offaly Street.  Bridget and her sister Alice Lawler worked for decades for the late Bob Osborne and his son Cyril in their Emily Square offices.  The Hughes sisters were of an old Athy family which for generations were involved with the freight business on the Grand Canal and the Barrow Navigation.  Three generations back Martin, James, Thomas and Patrick Hughes were boatmen based in Athy enjoying a way of life which has long since disappeared.  All that was left after their time were secondhand memories of a boating lifestyle which once made Athy a thriving hub of commercial activity involving shopkeepers, farmers and boatmen.  With the passing of the last of the Hughes sisters those memories of the past have receded yet further back.

A man whose company I have enjoyed for many years reached an important milestone with the celebration of his recent birthday.  Michael Wall, now of Chanterlands but originally of the Mayo landscape, continues to nurse the ambition of delivering the country’s affairs into the hands of his beloved Fine Gael much to the dismay of his much better informed wife Moya!  I have enjoyed many a ‘discussion’ with Michael as to the merits or demerits of certain Irish political leaders and while we cannot hope to agree, may I nevertheless wish him a well merited Happy Birthday.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Jack Meany and the Meany Family

‘There is no glory in defeat’.   A maxim oft told to a football team at half time as its members regather their strength and energies for the second half.  The result of last Sunday’s football match in Croke Park gave lie to the claim when the Kildare footballers walked off the pitch to the applause of proud supporters from the shortgrass county.  The team had remained on the pitch for quite some time after the game and the majority of the Kildare supporters also stayed behind in the stands and on Hill 16 to applaud their heroes as they trudged wearily towards the dressing rooms.  The Kildare Senior team did us proud, not only last Sunday, but after the opening losing match, throughout the subsequent footballing year and the supporters showed their appreciation at the end of the Croke Park game.

Nearer to home, Athy achieved a unique double with the success of Clare Kambamettu in the 2010 Rose of Tralee competition.  What are the chances of two Athy girls in successive years winning the London Rose competition?  But to transfer that question to the winning of the Rose of Tralee competition itself raises issues of betting odds far beyond our understanding.

Two Tralee Roses in two years from a small Irish town is a unique achievement and contributes enormously to raising the town’s profile.  For too long Athy was identified by reference to a bank robbery and unjustified claims of being a rough town subject to the activities of Hole in the Wall gangs.  All that is now surely in the past as the two winners of the Rose of Tralee competition show a different side to the South Kildare town.  Athy for the foreseeable future will be inextricably linked with the beauty and grace of two wonderful ambassadors who have given us cause to renew our pride in our own place. 

One family who in my time and before my time, took great pride in Athy and its people were the Meany’s of St. Patrick’s Avenue.  Jack, Kevin, Danny and Dermot with their sisters Molly and Margaret were involved in different aspects of the town’s life from the 1940s onwards.  I remember Kevin as the town’s librarian in the 1950s.  It was then a part time position, the library opening in the evening time only to give access to the books which were shelved in the small room in the Town Hall which is now used as a reference room.  Accessed by the stairs opposite Mrs. Josephine Gibbon’s house, the scarcity of motor traffic in those days posed no great dangers for library users.  Nowadays the hall door leading onto Emily Row is deemed a safety hazard and is consequently permanently locked.

I used the library a lot in the late 1950s, being then a great fan of John Creasey novels.  Kevin was proud of Athy and always encouraged library users to read anything touching on Athy and its history.  There was indeed very little known of local history in those days, but one book he always mentioned was ‘The Rebellion of 1798’ by Kilcoo born Patrick O’Kelly.  The local library never had a copy of the book and it was many years later before I managed to purchase a copy of this scarce work and so began a history journey which has never ended.  Kevin’s brother Danny who worked in the local Asbestos factory, was a keen photographer and an avid gatherer of photographic images of the town and its people.  Long before others had acknowledged the importance of photographs in recording social history, Danny had amassed and collated a lot of photographic material.  His legacy of prints and film is a vitally important element of Athy’s social history. 

Jack Meany had worked abroad for years, returning to Athy when he retired.  He was a great supporter of the Heritage Centre when it was first mooted and was always to be seen at historical walks and talks arranged in conjunction with the local history group.

Two weeks ago the last surviving member of the Meany family passed away, aged 86 years.  Dermot had been a patient in St. Vincent’s Hospital for many years past.  I knew Dermot when he worked in Paddy Dillon’s shop in Emily Square which is now the J1 Cafe.  He had previously worked in Galway and Tullamore.  He was a courteous man who was never known to give offence and his passing and the earlier death of his sister Margaret who passed away three years ago deprives us of the last of a family which graced the cultural and social life of Athy over many decades.

The local Heritage Centre is gearing up for the Shackleton Autumn School over the October Bank Holiday weekend and hosts a photographic exhibition on the Antarctic by John Gamble, Professor of Geology at University College Cork commencing on 14th September.  The exhibition titled ‘Fire and Ice: A Photographic Journey of Antarctia’ will run until 15th October. 

Professor Gamble returned to Ireland after 28 years in Australia and New Zealand.  He has published more than 100 scientific papers and has the rare distinction of having three terrestrial landmarks named in his honour – Gamble Glacier and Gamble Cone in Antarctia and the Gamble Volcanic Complex on the Tonga – Kermadec Island Arc in the South West Pacific.  The exhibition comes to Athy from the Jennings Gallery in Cork City.